On swarping, English ale-houses, pickled eggs — and Guy Fawkes

On a recent visit home to southwest Virginia, my mind, primed by conversation with my 84-year-old aunt, turned to childhood memory. A few brain circuits later, the word “swarp” materialized out of the ether. I recall hearing my mother use that word, among other locals.

Though not a popular word, swarp nevertheless has enjoyed occasional currency in the isolated coves of Eastern Kentucky, where wild groups of snake-handlers, ginseng-hunters, and gum-cutters, as well as other unsavory types such as versifiers, prevaricators, and the inventors of riddles, use it as a euphemism for being “shitte [sic] drunk.”

The word, with its sweet sibilant beginning, promising ease and beauty and grace, yet ends with one of the harshest sounds available in English: so too do the practitioners of swarping descend from the deceptive silken heights of their drunkenness to the foul charnel-house of despair and crapulous degradation. “Swarping” is, indeed, a devil’s word, and as such belongs in no polite company.

And so it seems that the origin of “swarp” closely comports with my memory. My recalling it also indicates more widespread usage in the southern Appalachians (southwest Virginia, in addition to eastern Kentucky). I do wonder if the term was once more common in our southern highlands, and now nearly vanished, like so many other expressive and colorful words and phrases.

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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